The Erotic Gift of Self-Denial
“The word ‘God’ defines a personal relation, not an objective concept. Like the name of the beloved in every love, it does not imply separation and distance. Hearing the beloved’s name is an immediate awareness, a dimensionless proximity of presence. It is our life wholly transformed into relation.” —Christos Yannaras, Variations of the Song of Songs
THE EROTIC GIFT OF SELF-DENIAL
Love transforms existence into relation. Without love, the created order exists in a state of non-relation: left to itself, nature is fundamentally autonomous, existing in a mode of being that is driven by instinctual drives and self-preservation. Man, apart from God, exists in this mode of being. His nature is driven by individual autonomy, self-sufficiency, and non-relation. But love transforms existence into relation.
A Love Found
When we stumble upon love, life is born. In the face of the Other, life, for the first time, finds meaning. We transcend our loneliness of self-sufficiency and find our heart, our very self, called to life in the presence of the Other. In love, our autonomous existence is transformed into ecstatic eros: a self-transcending relation, an erotic goodness.[i] Passionate longing permeates our entire being; a song of desire, calling us to union with our beloved.
A new-born child in the arms of his mother—here, the fullness of life can be found. For the new mother, life changes from autonomy to erotic self-giving. Enraptured by eros, she leaves behind her self-completeness and decides to find life in her child. Here life is made new; existence is transformed into life-giving relation.
Returning home from his life of self-sufficiency, the weary prodigal son is embraced by the unwavering love of the Father. In the accepting arms of Agape, all things are made new—the sinner is “reborn.” In love, the prodigal’s existence of estranging self-completeness is transformed into the ecstatic fullness of communion. When love is born, life is born.
A Love Lost
But love is a fickle thing, and left to ourselves we inevitably fall short; we always “miss the mark.” We taste the beginnings of love—with our beloved, with our child, with God Himself—but we cannot sustain it. The first wound, the first sign of instability and doubt causes us to withdraw. The defensive shell of our ego is restored; our self-preserving autonomy is fortified. Love turns from erotic self-giving to possession, the need to control, to dominate. What once brought life now brings death. The life-giving relation is corrupted as we drag existence back to the desiccated non-relation found in nature—to self-preservation, autonomy, and self-interest. Our ego deprives us of love; our nature keeps us from life.
Love, this salvific life of relation, will be restored only when the Other becomes more important to me than my survival, my self-interest and autonomy—when the ego is stripped of its armor. Thus, in repentance, I learn to throw off every conceptual cloak of self-defense, I give up the fleshly resistance of my ego. I deny my need for self-preservation, my life of autonomy, my selfish passions and desires, all for the sake of Other. Repentance becomes an erotic self-emptying, an act of vulnerability which leads to the free sharing of one’s soul—to the possibility of relation.[ii]
In the form of eros, self-denial leads to the restoration of relation; the cross leads to life.
The Erotic Gift
The Christian life of “self-denial,” properly understood, is an existential product of love. It is necessarily done from love and for love. Repentance, denial of passions, suppression of desires—the entire ascetic and moral life of the Church is an erotic offering of loving relation: everything is done for the sake of attaining life with the Other. In Christ, the life of denial, and all “moral commands,” are merely presuppositions for the freedom of love, for the ecstatic fullness of relation with God and man. The Christian life thus becomes an erotic gift—a life of loving sacrifice, a “burnt offering whose aroma is pleasing to the Lord.”
Any form of self-denial outside the context of relation, any motivation that is not spurred from our love for the Other, will necessarily fail. If suppression of desires and passions is motivated from duty, fear, or autonomous obedience to an impersonal “lawgiver,” I will remain in a wheel of self-sufficiency and non-relation. Man cannot transcend his autonomous nature, he cannot enter into the salvific life of loving relation, if self-denial is not set in the context of an erotic fact.[iv]
In the form of eros, denying our autonomous nature becomes the path to restored relation; suppression of passions leads to communion; our cross becomes an offering of love. A barren existence of self-completeness wholly transformed into relation, into erotic communion and life-giving presence. In love, we will come to life.
The Erotic Call
The Church understands love as that which gives life because God is love—he exists as ecstatic relationship, loving transcendence, the fullness of Triadic communion. While God may be unknowable in His essence, His activity is revealed to us in history and revelation as a personal energy of erotic longing for each of his creatures, as “an active extravagance of erotic goodness and as a zealot for an exclusive personal relationship.”[v] The cosmos, thus understood, is an “invitation”—it is His erotic gift that calls man to enter into the ecstatic fullness of life-giving relation. The face of the Other, the intelligible cosmos, the beauty of creation, the incarnation, the cross—it is all a divine calling to ecstatic relation with a personal God, to life as communion. The soul emerges free from death, from non-relation, when we recognize this divine summons which constitutes us as subjects: the personal call of the Loving Father.[vi]
Humanity’s reciprocal response to this divine call is an ecstatic event of transcendence, a denial and overcoming of our autonomous nature. We respond in eros, a personal ecstasy which transposes life from the existential self-sufficiency of individuality to the dynamic of relationship.[vii] The Church’s springboard into this response is located in repentance, in self-denial and obedience—an ecstatic response of self-offering and loving relation, an erotic gift of longing and hope.
[i] By “erotic,” here, I am not referring to a carnal desire; it has no sexual connotation. Rather, erotic is referred to here as a passionate desire which stems from eros: an affectionate longing of the heart. This concept of erotic love for God (and within God) is originally found in the writings of Pseudo Dionysius, where he presents Eros as a divine name.
[ii] Christos Yannaras, Variations on the Song of Songs (Holy Cross Orthodox Press: Brookline, MA, 2005), 65.
[iv] Christos Yannaras, Person and Eros (Holy Cross Orthodox Press: Brookline, MA, 2007), 239.
[v] Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God (T&T Clark International: London, 2005), 106.
[vii] Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God (T&T Clark International: London, 2005), 107.
[Note: the concepts, language, and themes used in this article are derived from the work of Orthodox theologian/philosopher, Christos Yannaras (as well as Catholic theologian/philosopher Jean-Luc Marion). What I have presented here is an exposition of Yannaras’ key themes found throughout his works: namely, Person and Eros, The Enigma of Evil, The Freedom of Morality, and most heavily Variations on the Song of Songs.]